A wise man once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We followed that sage advice and ended up catching up with Bigfoot, paddling around the Atlantic in search of barren beaches, dodging bighorn sheep in a 120-degree desert, battling rabies and mustering up a serious case of bear fear. We also found some fine places to smoke along the way.
You’ll stumble on the Savannah city park that was featured in Forrest Gump on any walk through town. The mansion you saw in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Also in plain, recognizable sight, a stone’s throw from the Savannah River, which is also the Georgia/South Carolina border. And the setting for the car chase in the original version of The Longest Yard, the one starring Burt Reynolds, was Forsyth Park in the city center.
Savannah, Georgia, a Southern gothic outpost, has benefitted from generous handouts to Hollywood productions more than most regions in the U.S. over the years.
But just 25 miles away from the heart of the city is some of the best wilderness Southeast Georgia has to offer. A series of islands, inlets and refuges makes up the coastal area of the Atlantic, an archipelago of natural resources and historical landmarks. These are better enjoyed without production trucks full of cables or a catering truck.
Fort Pulaski National Monument is the site of a Confederate encampment captured by the Union during the Civil War, and a microcosm of how the war went for the South. The fort was destroyed in battle, and the Confederate soldiers were captured and imprisoned in their own, repaired fort. That’s one sad Southern legacy.
The area around it, called Cockspur Island, is a treasure of tropical breezes, bright green grass and some good fishing. You can pull oysters, crab and bluefish out of the waters surrounding the island, and on a weekday, you see more fisherman than tourists. It’s a beautiful setting, and movie buffs will recognize Fort Pulaski from the classic Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies, in the scene where legions of zombies attack the fort.
Just across the inlet to the south is Little Tybee Island, attainable only by boat or kayak. Or for the more civilized, you can book a formal tour, but that’s cheating. What you get by cruising the mile or so on your own is independence to explore at leisure the 6,700 acres. Get around the main beach and ship into the creeks that wind around the island, in and out of the salt marshes. You can camp out there for free, and most nights you’ll be alone or at least in a spot where you can make yourself alone.
One more hop across one more inlet is Ossabaw Island Wildlife Management Area, a 40-square mile island also accessible only via watercraft. You can hit the 13 miles of beach on your own, but beyond that is protected maritime forest, a mix of swamp and highlands and off limits without a state-sanctioned tour guide.
Ossabaw is one of the few places where heading over with a group is tolerable. Talk nice and you’ll find a private tour, and if you’re flying solo, that means just you and a guide, also known as a rent-a-friend. If you’ve got company, you can also limit the size of the group.
Even with a guide, your wandering is limited but with any luck, you’ll see the herd of Sicilian donkeys – those mini mules with the fuzzy fur. Sure sights are the wild pigs and the deer, which pop up everywhere. It’s a challenging island for people who tend to take off on their own and poke around, but pathways in parts of the moss draped interior are timeless.
More challenging is the smoking situation. In 2011, the city passed a no smoking law that covered everything, so forget about relaxing and rehashing the fuzzy donkeys in a collegial setting.
We suggest a 30-mile drive to the Hilton Head area, which has a couple of decent places for a smoke. On the island, check into Carolina Cigars, which has a BYO lounge, outdoor space and a sizable humidor. Peaceful Henry’s in nearby Bluffton offers a 1,300-square foot lounge with a sufficient alcohol selection and something dear to our hearts – a vinyl record collection to leaf through.
We dig oddball names for towns, pondering the origins, even making up how places got their names.
We’re still working on Duck, West Virginia.
For now, it’s a dot on the map that marks one end of a remote ten-mile stretch of a trail an hour east of Charleston, West Virginia that is a wilderness treasure.
Driving toward Duck from the capital city, highways glide between massive stacks of sandstone that have been carved away for coal mining, the time-tested political hot potato that put the state on the map. While the mining industry has waned, what remains is a largely unpopulated state, 130 miles across, 240 miles long and home to a paltry 1.7 million folks. That leaves a lot of room to maneuver.
A trek toward Duck leads to the Elk River Trail in the center of the state, a classic getaway to the wilds that keeps you close to the necessary elements of civilization, i.e., hotel and Gino’s (local pizza tip).
The trail is a crushed-stone bed that connects Duck to the town of Ivydale, snaking along the Elk River, a 172-mile tributary that is part of the Mississippi watershed. It’s also the site of the last commercially operated steam-train line in the country, which ended in the 1960s.
Start in Ivydale, population 550, and choose your mode of movement, as long as it’s walking, running or biking. Keep the ATV at home, as it’s not allowed.
You’ll wind your way under a canopy of solid maples, elms and oaks, over newly constructed wooden bridges and around a few blind corners.
“We might want to take something along for bears, just in case,” my bike riding partner, Dale, advised. He’s an outdoorsman who has lived in the state his whole life, so he knows about the threat.
Let me explain that I have an unreasonable fear of bears. Not sharks, not disease, not adverse weather and not much of anything.
I was on irrational bear alert the whole ride, which made it a little more exciting.
Once we left the shotgun houses of Ivydale and headed east toward Duck, the few dwellings we saw were cottages, fishing camps and weekend river getaways, some accessible only by boat.
After a couple miles, we stopped at a bridge that spans Waters Retreat, a tributary flowing off the surrounding hills and into the Elk.
The stream trickled in soothing, fresh resonance as a bright yellow kayak poked by on the river. It was otherwise nature quiet, chattering birds the only other noise. We moved down a few more miles, the track never becoming onerous and the terrain, while curvy, remained a pleasingly picturesque patch of path.
Pools filled with bass, rainbow trout and walleye pop up at random, with one side of the trail an ascending mass of foliage that goes from full grown trees to saplings and vines as the hill climbs. On the other side, it’s all river.
At Duck, there’s a landing for canoes and whatever other small craft you want to float. The pedal back is serene and easy, traversing the same trail but seeing it from a different angle, making it new.
We finish and head back to Charleston and The Squire Tobacconist, a medium-sized cigar lounge that is spitting distance from the Kanawha River, which runs through the middle of town.
Charlie runs the place and he curates his humidor with a geographically diverse mix of smokes and a sizable BYO lounge. About 30 minutes to the west is Almost Havana in Teays Valley, which boasts what it says is the largest lounge in the state.
West Virginia takes a lot of grief, and its punch-line status is undeserved. There’s a lot of outdoors there to enjoy in all seasons.
We’ve come up with a new state motto: Give it a chance.
Fat Man’s Misery. I remember the dark underground trail at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky almost as well as I remember getting bit by a raccoon on my first visit to the park as a little kid.
The close cropping of Fat Man’s Misery is named for its difficult passage for anyone over a 32 waist or a size 5. And my child’s mind wondered what happened to those who couldn’t make it. This was pre ‘America-the-Obese,’ but it still seemed like a harsh test for the less fortunate.
Mammoth Cave is a naturally created adventure park cloaked as a tourist trap. At 400 miles, it’s the longest known underground cave system in the world and it grows in size every few years as more caves are found. Boat tours, nighttime excursions into the caves and historic group tours are part of the park’s offerings, and they’re often crowded and almost always requiring an advance ticket.
You’ll need some relaxing before heading out there.
The place to stage before heading to the park is Bowling Green, and one place to settle down for a pre-explorer smoke is Bowling Green Pipe & Cigar. The closet-sized storefront sits on the town’s main square along a strip of eateries and drinkeries, across from a small park with a centerpiece fountain. The place offers a small but carefully selected humidor and a generous variety of bourbon and whiskey. This is, after all, Kentucky, home of some of the finest.
Fortified, head north for 25 miles toward the park. There’s so much room in the Mammoth Cave complex that it’s possible to escape the mob and get outside the ropes. Some of the various tours are worthwhile, including sojourns into caves where the stalactites hang like candle wax. But we’re more at home away from the gaggle.
On the roads through the park, every few miles, there’s a trailhead or, better, a small opening in the forest that gives you a place to park and start to walk.
We head to Cedar Sink on the south end of the park, an unfettered mile or so walk through a forest of sugar maples and hickory oaks. It’s hohum in terms of exertion but the hilly, rocky terrain leads into a deep ravine, much of which is cordoned off with warnings of dangerous precipices and other looming harm. At the hole, which is an impressive seven acres and makes Florida’s sinkholes look like puddles, there are viewing platforms, a steel stairway and benches. At a slow time, it’s a peaceful pause and a place to ponder. At a busy time, which is frequent, there’s not much room for serenity in a nature setting.
Keep moving, past the signs and around the hole and up a steep incline. You can walk all the way around the sinkhole to a trail that heads stiffly uphill. Within 10 minutes, you’re alone in the forest on a narrow path that crawls and twists deeper and deeper. It’s an edifying trek into solitude and, away from the carefully tended trails, convenient stairways and loud crowds. Notice the difference when you come back to the sinkhole, and the clamor of the group. The road less traveled is always best.
After that, head to the main park area.
Fat Man’s Misery is definitely not less traveled, but it’s a spectacle. The crowded guided tour wanders through caverns that narrow to 18 inches wide in places and the ceiling dips to around five feet. Unless you’re claustrophobic or Gheorghe Mureșan, the passage is easy, even by today’s increased size standards.
OK, the raccoon. It was in a cage in a campground at Mammoth Cave and it was so furry and pet-like. I couldn’t resist trying to pet it as it fed on some pellets. Shocker: it bit me. The rabies shots weren’t that bad.
VALLEY OF FIRE
You might start the day in the David Rockwell villa at the Nobu Hotel in Las Vegas, but within 45 minutes, you can be a fleck of sand on the windswept banks of bright red sandstone. There are 40,000 acres of brilliant rock sculptures, impeccably designed by Mother Nature, in the dauntingly named Valley of Fire, a Nevada state park north of the city. The ethereal landscape of rock smoothed by ages of wind is a start when you enter the park, but the deeper you go, even on the main road, the more outcroppings pop up in hues of brilliant pinks and reds, dotted with space age greens and grays. It’s like walking onto a sci-fi movie set, with the spires of rock sitting off the road twirled and etched as if painted.
Some folks do the drive straight through the middle of the park with a few stops at key points. In Valley of Fire, even the common spots are well worth it, including the White Domes, which slims to a narrow passage between enormous walls of rock, Pastel Canyon, the name tells it all, and Rainbow Vista, where a half-mile walk off the parking area gives a pretty good look at a chunk of the valley. For anyone keeping score, as a rule, gray rocks means 500 million or so years old and red or pink means 250 million, give or take a few million.
The drive-through is fine, but as always with the great wilderness, there’s more if you want it.
It was around 120 degrees one June when I headed into the valley, a repeat guest.
I went directly to the visitor’s center, a worthy time taker, filled with exhibits of desert landscapes, stuffed creatures of the desert, and plenty of reading material devoted to the geography and weather in the area. And to catch the brief movie that outlines the history of the valley. It’s all like the pre-game show. You’re getting ready to deal with the main event.
Ask the ranger about hiking any more than a few hundred feet and she shakes her head. The Fire Wave trail has been around for years, but until a few years ago wasn’t noted on the Valley of Fire official map. Hikers communicate on these things, though, on message boards, so this was a not-so-well-kept secret. Around 2015, the park began to include the trail as a destination. Just not when it’s 120 degrees.
“I wouldn’t do that in this heat,” she says.
Fire Wave is well worth it, as the heat can tamp down the masses, and the 1.5-mile round trip is an easy jaunt on a lunar landscape, with smooth inclines to pursue and challenging rock formations to climb and descend. Darting chuckwallas, zebra-tailed lizards and jackrabbits flee for their holes or rocks that provide shelter.
After wrapping up with some time spent just appreciating the place, I drove out and as I crested a hill to the north of the visitor’s center, on the main road, a bighorn sheep quickly skittered across the road. It wasn’t a large sheep, and its hooves looked tiny compared to its body as it appeared from my right and disappeared into a wash.
It’s a rare sighting in the summer, but it indicates a healthy population of sheep in the area.
In the Valley of Fire, any little utility road or unmarked pathway can be an adventure to be enjoyed in solitude. Walk back far enough into the canyons and you’ll find unsullied petroglyphs on the walls and the occasional mysterious totem of stacked rocks. Still trying to figure that out.
Back to the city, where a treasure trove of lounges awaits (see “Magic Vegas”). Some even have air conditioning.
Back to where you started the day, at the Nobu at Caesars, and head down to the Montecristo Cigar Bar, which features a 400-square foot humidor. It may even have air conditioning, if that’s your thing.
APALACHICOLA NATIONAL FOREST
A two-lane dirt road in the Apalachicola National Forest in the Florida Panhandle isn’t where you’d expect to see Bigfoot, especially on an unseasonably hot spring day. So it was probably – shudder – a bear. That’s the easy way to explain a stunningly bulky hairy creature that crossed the sandy path in a part of the 573,000-acre park that is more Savannah than forest.
The forest is a festival of diverse foliage, jammed with arching oaks and towering pines, with ubiquitous palmetto (means “little palm”) hugging the ground.
The forest sits just south of Tallahassee and the first entry point is near Silver Lake, the forest’s largest recreation area. It’s a warm up for the wilder parts of the forest, popular with families, with some white sands that create a makeshift beach. It can get crowded on weekends as a swimming hole that has grown in favor over the years for its ease of access.
A trail circles the 15-acre lake, and even the Forest Service calls the path “gentle.” Pass on that. The biggest excitement at Silver Lake is the threat of alligators, but it’s too sedate even for them to make an appearance very often.
Heading a little south, the Leon Sinks Geological Area is the logical next stop. We miss the former heavyweight champ, who died in February, and…oh. Sinks, not Spinks. Never mind.
The Leon Sinks area offers two trails that dance around several sinkholes, which are noted as wet sink and dry sink. Which would you choose to approach? This area closes periodically due to rains, but it’s a good place to see these little disruptions.
The real deal is deeper into the forest. Move south, down to the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, where you may walk in water sometimes up to your hips. The lowland is flooded much of the time, but it’s also the area richest in wildlife, including fox, bear and alligator. Our boots were dampened, although getting in there in the early spring generally avoids the wetter summer/fall months, when the monsoon turns the place into ‘Nam.
It was south of Bradwell, on a trail near the Sopchoppy River, that the fleecy beast, whatever it was, made its appearance. The trail is the best in the park, diverse in fauna complete with a “Deliverance” vibe. Some trails wander right through the underbrush, which isn’t as dense as it gets to the north but still looks like nothingness, and is pocked with trees with higher branches and sparse lower trunks.
The creature wandered slowly at about 50 yards ahead on a straight part of the road. I stopped to watch and have a ‘what the hell?’ moment. It was either walking on all fours or bent over. It was dark brown and husky. It looked straight ahead, as if following something. It crossed from left to right. I halted for a few minutes – let’s give this thing some room – and when I got to where it had crossed, nothing. According to the Bigfoot tracking site, Bfro.net, Florida is third in the nation in reported sightings, behind California and Washington.
It was a day for the books. Best to head back to Tallahassee and ponder this one over a smoke, with a happy selection of lounges to choose from.
Cigars of Tally, with its roomy porch, Fuma Cigar Social, for the Cuban coffee, Capital Cigar, play some chess with that cigar, and Jerry’s Cigar Shop and Ashton Lounge, big humidor and cigar breakfast socials every Saturday morning from 9-11, with a food truck.
That’s a strong lineup for a small town, so there’s plenty of reason to dig in. And with so much of the endemic hocus-pocus that rages in any state capital, Bigfoot doesn’t seem like such a stretch.